Montgomery Ward M-8493 – Roy Shaffer – 1939

Though once a widely known and popular personality on radio stations around St. Louis, with a brief recording career that produced only eight discs, cowboy singer Roy Shaffer since drifted into near total obscurity; in fact, the article hereafter appears to be the only substantial biography of him ever published.

Roy Shaffer and Gang appearing on KWK, St. Louis.  Roy pictured third from left.  Circa 1940s.

Roy was born Jesse Lee Shaffer on December 6, 1906, one of several children of Luther and Anna Shaffer of Mathiston, Mississippi.  After growing up on the farm, he left home to pursue the life of a singing cowboy.  According to one account, he got his start in the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and made his debut appearance on the radio in 1926.  By the middle of the 1930s, he was living in New Orleans and appearing on WWL, billed as the “Lone Star Cowboy” (making him one of quite a few, including native Texan Leon Chappelear, to adopt that sobriquet), an engagement which purportedly brought him as many as 7,462 fan letters in one day.  He also reportedly claimed, at various times, the pseudonyms of the “Rambling Yodeler” ,”Tennessee Kid”, “Mississippi Tadpole”, “Louisiana Bullfrog”, and “Reckless Red”.  During that stint, M.M. Cole of Chicago published a book of his songs, and he made his first phonograph records, cutting four sides for Decca in their field trip to New Orleans in 1936.  Also around that time, he married Cajun girl Edith Falcon, who would later join in in the act, billed as “Eddie Shaffer”.  He returned to the studio once more in 1939 to record a further twelve songs, this time for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, in Chicago.  These included a rendition of the classic cowboy song “Bury Me Out on the Prairie”, the popular “Great Speckled Bird”, and covers Chris Bouchillon’s “Talking Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues”.  Those two sessions accounted for the entirety of Shaffer’s known commercial recording work, but his greatest success was evidently found on the radio; in 1939, Rural Radio magazine reported that Shaffer had appeared on fifty-nine radio stations, “both the smallest and the largest,” though he was reported as “off-the-air” and living in Istrouma, Louisiana, in 1938.  By 1940, he was in St. Louis, where he remained for the majority of his career, and employed by the Carson-Union-May-Stern furniture store to appear on their radio programs on several different local stations.  He made appearances on WEW from 1939 into ’41 with his “Hillbillies”, after which he began appearing on KWK with his “Gang”, a gig he still held in the middle-to-late part of the decade; he was also on KSD in 1942 with his “Missouri Ramblers”.  By the early 1950s, he was on KWRE in Warrenton, Missouri.  He also made off-air appearances, attending and participating in rodeos and giving live programs for his fans, often at events put on by Carson’s Furniture Store.  In the 1950s, he owned and operated a “hillbilly park” in Mexico, Missouri.  He was still active on the radio in St. Louis as late as 1956.  Roy Shaffer died in March of 1974 in Greenville, Mississippi, at the age of sixty-eight.  Several of Shaffer’s recordings were later reissued on BMG’s East Virginia Blues: The Secret History of Rock and Roll and JSP Records’ Classic Field Recordings: Landmark Country Sessions from a Lost Era, but those have done little to rise the artist up and out from the depths of obscurity.

Montgomery Ward M-8493 was recorded on June 26, 1939, at RCA Victor’s Studio C in Chicago, Illinois by Roy Shaffer, singing with guitar.  It was also released on Bluebird B-8234.

In his casual delivery of Chris Bouchillon’s seminal “Talking Blues”, Shaffer oozes southern charm like hot butter through sourdough toast.  “If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you how to do it; just grease yourself in a little mutton suet…”

Talking Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Flip the record over and he gets low-down on his arrangement of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic Texas folk blues standard “The Match Box Blues”—one of my personal favorites.

The Match Box Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Victor V-40008 – “Peg” Moreland – 1928

Known to radio listeners across the Southwest from the 1920s to the 1940s as the “King of the Ditty Singers”, Dallas’ own “Peg” Moreland was surely among the most prolific pre-war folksingers from the State of Texas, yet most unfortunately he has since fallen behind that so-common veil of obscurity.

"Peg" Moreland, from 1930 Victor supplemental.

“Peg” Moreland, from 1930 Victor supplemental.

“Peg” was born Arnot Jackson Moreland (though he switched his first and middle names later in life) on October 29, 1892, on a farm in Rienzi, Texas, a no-longer-extant community in Hill County, one of at least eight children of Samuel Jackson and Mollie (née Arnot) Moreland.  From a young age, Moreland memorized folk songs he picked up from his southwestern environment.  Not long after 1900, the family moved west to Canyon, Texas, where Pa Moreland operated a grocery store until his untimely death in 1908.  There, the young Moreland played piano, clarinet and saxophone in the Canyon Municipal Band.  Jackson served in the National Guard for three years prior to the First World War, attaining the rank of corporal, and was later justice of the peace in Randall County for three years beginning in 1921.  At some point between 1917 and 1925, Moreland lost his right leg in a railroad accident, presumably during his work as a brakeman on the Santa Fe, the replacement for which gained him the nickname “Peg”.  He moved to Dallas with his family in 1924.  With guitar in hand and a head full of folk ditties, Moreland began singing on Dallas’ venerable radio station WFAA in 1925.  Moreland sang in a light and pleasant tenor croon—akin to other popular radio folksingers like Bradley Kincaid—and played guitar in a snappy, syncopated, ragtime-esque flatpicked style.  His repertoire—said to consist of over two-thousand “ditties”—was not too dissimilar from that of Georgia’s Riley Puckett, with material ranging from cowboy ballads, to old minstrel and parlor songs.

For a short time, Moreland went west to work as a railroad mail clerk on the Arizona run before returning to WFAA in 1927.  In July of 1928, Moreland traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company; in his first session, he cut five sides, followed by three more two days later.  While he was there, he spent a brief time performing on the WLS National Barn Dance as “Tex” Moreland before returning home to Texas.  The next year, Victor came to him, conducting a field trip to Dallas, during which he recorded another three sides.  He later attended Victor field trips to Memphis and Atlanta, in 1929 and ’30, respectively, resulting in a further eight sides.  All of the sides he recorded, nineteen in total, were released, some on split releases shared with the likes of Harry “Mac” McClintock and Blind Jack Mathis.  After 1930, Peg Moreland made no further commercial recordings, but his radio career was far from over, and he also performed frequently in local vaudeville and functions.  He remained a fixture on WFAA, its associate station KGKO, and other stations around Texas and Oklahoma, at least as late as the Second World War.  Moreland never married and lived with his mother and brothers until her death in 1943.  Late in his life, Moreland lived in hotels around the city of Dallas, including the New Oxford and Lawrence.  “Peg” Moreland died on January 11, 1973 in Dallas, Texas, of a coronary.  His death certificate still listed his occupation as “entertainer” and WFAA as his employer.

Victor V-40008 was recorded on July 5 and 3, 1928, respectively, at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois—Moreland’s first session.  “Peg” Moreland sings and accompanies himself on the guitar.

Peg first sings one of my favorite home-spun ditties: “Stay in the Wagon Yard”.  The song tells the humorous tale of a farmer who comes to town to bring his crop to market.  He leaves the wagon yard to “see the ‘lectric lights and watch the cars come in,” only to be taken on a drunken spree by some city dudes.  He warns his fellow farmers to “buy a half-pint and stay in the wagon yard.”  Probably best known by Grandpa Jones’s rendition, Moreland’s recording was the first of several contemporaneous versions, including ones by Georgia fiddlers Lowe Stokes and Earl Johnson, as well as Alabama folkster Lew Childre.  The Fresno State Traditional Ballad Index lists Arthur Tanner—who sang on the Stokes recording—as the probable writer, though this seems unlikely, seeing as Moreland, from Texas, made his recording of the song more than a year prior.  It seems more likely that Stokes and the gang, who followed Moreland’s verse almost to the letter with the exception of omitting the last stanza, heard it from Moreland’s record, though where Moreland learned the song I couldn’t say; he was not a songwriter himself and denied ever producing any original songs, instead drawing fully on traditional material.  In addition to Moreland’s Texan heritage, the line “I’m a deacon in a hard-shell church down near Possum Trot” could suggest a Texas origin, assuming it refers to the predominately black farming community near the Louisiana border, though there are places by that name in several other states.  It is worth noting that Earl Johnson’s 1930 recording adds several verses not heard in Moreland’s or Stokes’s records.  Quite a few recordings have been made since, and the song’s popularity with old-time string bands endures to this day.

Stay in the Wagon Yard, recorded July 5, 1928 by “Peg” Moreland.

Moreland’s rendition of the popular folk song “The Old Step Stone”—commonly known by the title “Goodbye to My Stepstone” or some variation on that—was his first recorded side.  The song in its original form is believed to date back to 1880, when it was published as “Old Doorstep” by one J.O. Webster.

The Old Step Stone, recorded July 3, 1928 by “Peg” Moreland.

Silvertone 5013 – Chubby Parker – 1927

With his “little old-time banjo” by his side, Chicago-based Chubby Parker was of the earliest folksingers to find fame on the radio, and could be viewed as the WLS National Barn Dance’s counterpart to the WSM Grand Ole Opry’s Uncle Dave Macon.

Chubby Parker, as pictured in 100 WLS Barn Dance Favorites. A crop of the only well-publicized photograph of Parker.

“Chubby” was born Frederick R. Parker on October 23, 1876, in Lafayette, Indiana, the only (living) son of the deputy treasurer of Tippecanoe County.  His father, North, had roots in Kentucky, and his mother, Emma, in Virginia.  He attended Purdue University and earned his degree in electrical engineering in 1898.  Sometime after the turn of the century, he left Indiana for city life in Chicago, and there he married Miss Frances S. Kischel in 1907 and had a daughter name Claudia four years later.  At the time of the first World War, Parker claimed his occupation as patent attorney and “inventor”.  In 1925, he became one of the earliest stars on the burgeoning scene of country and folk music when he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on the Sear-Roebuck owned radio station WLS.  With simple banjo accompaniment, sometimes with the addition of whistling or harmonica, Parker’s repertoire consisted almost entirely of traditional folk and old-time songs ranging from well known numbers like “Oh, Susanna” and “The Year of Jubilo” (a.k.a. “Kingdom Coming”) to remarkably obscure ones such as his version of the old minstrel song “Pompey Smash and Davy Crockett”; he displayed a particular predilection toward humorous nonsense songs like “Bib-A-Lollie-Boo”.  While admittedly unbased conjecture, it stands to reason that Parker may have been employed by the station as for his engineering abilities prior to his becoming an on-air personality, as would have been somewhat common practice in those early days of radio broadcasting.  Though not possessing the best voice and far from the most exemplary banjo player, Parker was met with widespread adulation and reportedly garnered 2,852 pieces of fan mail in one week in February of 1927.  He began publishing sheet music of his some of his popular numbers, such as “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now” and “I’m a Stern Old Bachelor”.  Sears also marketed Supertone “Ragtime King” five-string banjos emblazoned with Parker’s autograph, and some of his Silvertone records featured the same.  Beginning in the very same month that all those letters came in, Chubby Parker recorded for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records and a plethora of other labels, ultimately producing a total of thirty-six sides for the company in a span of three years, of which twenty-eight were released, mostly on the Sears-Roebuck labels Silvertone and Supertone.  He also recorded as banjoist with Tommy Dandurand’s Barn Dance Fiddle Band (try saying that three times fast).  That stint was interrupted by one errant session for Columbia that produced only one record, which became his most famous after the inclusion of one side—”King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O”—in Harry Smith’s influential Anthology of American Folk Music.  In 1931, he concluded his recording career with three consecutive sessions for the American Record Corporation, producing a further nineteen sides—mostly re-recordings of songs he had recorded once or twice before—all of which were released, again primarily marketed by Sears-Roebuck on their Conqueror label, though one also appeared on the other ARC dimestore labels.  Thereafter, Parker apparently departed the Barn Dance, purportedly jealous of fellow folksinger Bradley Kincaid’s popularity.  He made at least one brief return to the program in 1936, and was still promoted in station publications at the same time.  By the end of the 1930s, Parker, then in his early sixties, had apparently retired from all work.  Chubby Parker died in Chicago on August 28, 1940.

Silvertone 5013 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on April 2, 1927, at the studios of the Starr Piano Co—Parker’s second recording session.  He cut earlier versions of both sides at his first, but they were rejected.  Chubby Parker sings, whistles, and banjos.  It was also released on Silvertone 25013 and Supertone 9191, and with side “A” appearing on Gennett 6097 and Champion 15278 and “B” on Gennett 6120 and Champion 15298.

Parker’s rendition of “Oh, Susanna” is one of the most quaint, most rustic things I have ever heard in my entire life—and believe me when I tell you, I have heard a great many quaint and rustic things!  Parker’s simple banjo and enormously understated performance is a far cry from the rollicking style in which Carson Robison recorded the Stephen Foster standard five years later.  Do be advised however, Foster’s lyrics gravitate considerably in the direction opposite what may be considered politically correct.  Tony Russell’s Country Music Records discography notes that this issue used the spelling “Oh, Suzanna”; though some copies do display that variation, this one, as you can plainly see, does not.

Oh, Susanna, recorded April 2, 1927 by Chubby Parker.

On the reverse, Chubby sings and whistles his version of the old chestnut “Little Brown Jug”; he tended to work through these numbers quite fast, and packed considerable number of verses into the three-minute limit.  Parker, rather atypically, played his banjo in a manner quite reminiscent of the “boom-chang” style of plucking alternating bass strings and strumming in-between that was nigh ubiquitous among old-time guitarists of the 1920s and ’30s, as exemplified by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and many others, rather than common styles of banjo picking.

Little Brown Jug, recorded April 2, 1927 by Chubby Parker.

Victor P-79 – Smoky Mountain Ballads – 1941

In the year of 1941, the venerable folklorist and song collector John A. Lomax—best remembered for his 1910 book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, his field recordings made for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, and his discovery of the legendary Lead Belly—set out, at the age of seventy-four, to assemble a groundbreaking album of folk music from the Great Smoky Mountains of the southeastern United States.  He selected from the catalog of the Victor record company (and their subsidiary label Bluebird) a total of ten masters of traditional mountain folk music recorded by relatively contemporary musicians and groups by the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, and the Carter Family.  It was late in his illustrious career, and only one of the numerous remarkable accomplishments to his name.

The album cover for Smoky Mountain Ballads, edited by John A. Lomax.

John Avery Lomax was born on September 23, 1867, in Goodman, Mississippi, but he got to Texas as fast as he could.  His parents James Avery and Susan Frances Lomax brought the family by wagon to “the low cedar-clad hills of Bosque County,” north of Meridian, Texas, where young John was reared.  Growing up on what was then the western frontier, Lomax was exposed to cowboy ballads and folk songs sung by a former slave hired to work on the family farm, and he began to do what had seldom yet been done: collect them and write them down.  At twenty-one, he left farm life behind and enrolled in college in Granbury.  After graduating, he became a schoolteacher around the region of his upbringing.  In 1895, he entered the University of Texas in Austin, graduating two years later with a major in English literature.  While there, he showed his collection of folk songs to one of his English professors, who decried them “cheap and unworthy.”  The dejected Lomax then burned them behind his dormitory and turned his focus to his studies.  After his graduation, he married Bess Brown—with whom he would have four children, Shirley, John Jr., Alan, and Bess—and taught English for a stretch at Texas A&M.  In 1907, he attended Harvard as a graduate student under Professors Barret Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge.  Unlike his professor at U.T., they encouraged his interest in cowboy songs and ultimately helped him receive a Sheldon grant to research them.  Thus, in 1910, at the age of forty-three, John A. Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, with a foreword by former president Theodore Roosevelt, the first in a series of song collections he would compile.  With U.T. professor Leonidas Payne, he also established the Texas Folklore Society in 1909.  From 1910, Lomax also worked an administrative job at the University of Texas, until Texas governor Jim “Pa” Ferguson’s feud with academics got him fired in 1917.  So he moved to Chicago to work as a banker in a firm operated by the son of one of his former professors, and later worked with U.T. alumni groups after Ferguson’s impeachment.

After his wife passed in 1931, at his son John Jr.’s encouragement, Lomax set off on a lecture tour that ultimately resulted in his involvement in the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song.  Having previously recorded some Texas folksingers like Newton Gaines on wax cylinders, he arranged with the Archive to provide him with portable recording equipment, with which he would traverse the American South in search of traditional folksingers to record for posterity in the Library of Congress, preferably ones untainted by the influence of modern popular culture—those who still adhered to an older tradition.  With his son Alan behind the wheel of his Ford sedan, the Lomaxes began their journey in their home state of Texas in June of 1933, visiting rural prison farms in search of musical convicts whose incarceration had separated their traditional repertoires from the dissemination of popular music.  They were first turned away at the gates of the prison in Huntsville, but they soon found success when they arrived at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas.  There, they discovered sixty-three-year-old James “Iron Head” Baker and seventy-one-year-old Moses “Clear Rock” Platt,two “habitual criminals” who had spent the better part of their lives in the Texas prison system.  Lomax recorded them singing hollers such as “Go Down Old Hannah”, “Old Rattler”, and “Black Betty”, ultimately making return trips to collect more of their music.  Lomax eventually grew fond of “Iron Head”, and send him small amounts of money, which were reciprocated in the form of small handcrafted trinkets.  Eventually, Lomax secured Baker’s parole to act as his assistant, though the arrangement was short-lived.  Soon after, they ventured on to Louisiana, where they paid a visit to the State Penitentiary at Angola.  Locked away behind the prison walls was a singer and guitarist who would become Lomax’s greatest discovery: the forty-five-year-old Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.  After recording Lead Belly in several performances in July of 1933, Lomax returned a year later with superior equipment to capture more of his extensive repertoire in better quality.  This time, Lead Belly requested that Lomax deliver a song he had prepared as a plea for his pardon to Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen.  Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly was released later that year (though the state insisted that the song had nothing to do with it).  Required to find work or face re-incarceration, Lead Belly convinced Lomax to take him on as a driver and aide in his travels. Ultimately, Lomax traveled several hundred-thousand miles and preserved hundreds of songs by numerous performers, both in and out of prison, for the Library of Congress.

With Lead Belly along, Lomax went back to Yankeeland to begin a new series of lecture tours featuring the folksinger.  Not long afterward, the partnership between the folklorist and the folksinger ended quite acrimoniously, as Lead Belly sued Lomax for payment that he believed had been withheld—though they later recovered a friendly acquaintanceship.  In 1934, he remarried, to Miss Ruby Terrill, whom he had first met in 1921 while she was the dean of women at the East Texas State Normal College in Commerce.  His associated with the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Music continued after his field work had more-or-less concluded.  In 1947, with his son Alan, he wrote and published Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, a memoir of his life on the road in search of America’s native song.  John A. Lomax died from a stroke on January 26, 1948; an ailing Lead Belly gave his last concert in Austin, Texas, honoring the late folklorist.  His legacy was carried on by his sons John Jr., Alan, and Bess, and his influence continued to be felt, both in the field of folklore scholarship and in folk music for the decades to come.

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Keynote 106 – Talking Union – 1941

As the Great Depression gave way to the war economy at the beginning of the 1940s, many formerly unemployed workers were called back to the shops.  As such, many of them found it prudent to unionize and protect their rights.  In their support, a group of left-leaning folksingers offered to their cause what they knew best: music.  In the memory of the late labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, the Almanac Singers made Talking Union with a simple message: “Don’t mourn for me—organize.”

The album cover of Talking Union;  “Dedicated to the Memory of Joe Hill.”

The Almanac Singers organized in 1940 when Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Millard Lampell came together over a mutual love for folk music and leftist politics.  Sometimes Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Bess Lomax Hawes, and others would join in as well.  They drew the name from one of the two books in every rural household: the almanac and the Bible—the latter to latter to help them through the next world, the former to help through this one.  Aligned with the Popular Front, their intention was to fight fascism and racism, oppose the war, and elevate the working peoples by singing “the old tunes working people have been singing for a long time,” in the spirit of old Joe Hill.  “Sing `em easy, sing `em straight, no holds barred,” they professed.  In the spring of 1941, they group made their first records for New York record shop owner Eric Bernay, a six disc album titled Songs for John Doe, opposing American involvement in the war in Europe, pressed on their own vanity label by Keynote Recordings and distributed primarily through communist bookstores.  Despite low circulation and controversy surrounding the first album, they followed up a few months later with another, Talking Union, “dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill,” this time appearing on the Keynote label.  Reissued by Folkways Records in 1955, it proved to be their most popular work.  Subsequently, the Almanac Singers recorded two non-political albums of folk music: Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads, and Sod Buster Ballads.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Alamacs reversed their stance on the war and recorded Dear Mr. President, another Keynote album.  Outside of recording, the Almanac Singers performed for workers, pioneering the mold of the modern folk music group by wearing working clothes and encouraging audiences to join in their song.  As the war ramped up in 1942, the Almanacs were targeted by U.S. intelligence who deemed their message “seditious,” and were routinely smeared by the media until their final dissolution at the end of 1942 or beginning of ’43.  The breakup did little to stifle the careers of its former members; Seeger and Hays both enjoyed long careers as folksingers, while Lampell went on to Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter.

Keynote 106—Talking Union—is a three-disc album comprised of K 301 through K 303.  It was recorded circa May of 1941 in Central Park West, New York City, and released the following July.  The Almanac Singers are Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Carol White, Sam Gary, and Josh White; Seeger plays banjo and White plays guitar.  The album is dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill.

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